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Category Archives: TV Review

Remember the way 24 (see here for Season 5, or here for Season 6 and here for the movie – the early good ones were too soon for this blog) changed watching tv? Realising that waiting for a week for a new episode was not a pleasant built-up of tension, but a nuisance and not the way I want to consume television? Taping shows and getting DVD boxes, preparing to binge on a couple of hours of a “real time thriller”? And apart from the format, the first couple of seasons had memorable characters: Nina Myers, the CTU director that got himself into a nuclear blast, Nina Myers, Chloe and her chubby co-worker, Nina Myers, Tony Almeida …

In a word: I did like the show, even though it became apparent during season 2 that a 24-episode run is just way too many episodes to sustain tension and a less than ridiculous plot. For the reboot of the franchise, 24 Legacy did away with this last problem and limited itself to 12 episodes, thank you! It also tried to grab as many of the previous seasons’ actors as possible and included them more or less coherently. And it introduced a new Jack Baur who – obviously – is not called Jack Baur but Eric Carter, an equally masculine name on a much more masculine guy.

This is actually a good thing in more than one way. Not only have I never considered Kiefer Sutherland to be an action hero kind of guy (I associate him mostly with things like “Flatliners”). I also just could not stand his breathless “We’re running out of time” anymore. Also, he died way too often, the wuss … Corey Hawkins seems like a decent guy, a bit vulnerable yet tough, sufficient number of family members associated with him to make for good blackmailing material if the show continues. Given the dwindling audience numbers, my guess is this will not happen, though. As an escapist diversion with evil terrorists, more evil politicians, most evil agencies and some good guys who are mostly drug dealers, it served its purpose. Network television does not have the quality of writing or production others have these days, but kudos to Fox for making the best of it.

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/24_legacy/s01

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„Based on a story by Stephen King” more often than not spells disaster. Not sure why that is, but apart from the notable exceptions (“Shining”, “Carrie”, “Shawshank”, “Stand By Me” and some others) the majority of film and tv versions comes across as sloppily compiled B-class at best. I always thought that with King’s detailed depiction of character and atmosphere, his books are better suited to a tv series format, but not so many of those held up to the promise (“Salem’s Lot” does, I suppose).

“11.22.63”, produced by JJ Abram’s Bad Robot company as an original series for Hulu, is based on a novel of considerable volume, is packed with 1960s atmosphere, and lives to a certain degree off its Groundhog-like reset button that the protagonist needs to push a couple of times in order to get things right. This might be the major difference to this tv show, which moves forward in a more linear fashion, skipping something like half of the book, and mostly getting away with it. I guess only those who did enjoy the epic scale at the novel’s heart, stressed by the repeated attempts to start anew into the effort of stopping the Kennedy assassination, triggering each time a new 3-year countdown clock, will find that there is something missing. Taken as it is, the tv story moves along nicely, driven by James Franco’s madly charming protagonist, trying to work his way through the 1960s, an age without mobile phones and sneakers. He faces the expected adversaries (gambling mafia) and the less expected ones (the past fighting back against efforts to meddle with history), and gets his share of physical and emotional bruises. His love interest and the rest of the cast populating this world are all well cast and contribute to successful suspension of disbelief where needed. I consider the book to be among King’s best works in 20 years – the teleplay is not as strong by far as the novel it is based on, but as a gripping miniseries, this works perfectly well. The final scenes are moving and true, and once you have reached the end of the final episode, you will be awarded with your fair share of tears.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/11-22-63/s01/

As I just finished watching the second season of “Utopia”, it is worth reminding myself of how great a show this is. Especially season 1 starts with a bang and then tortures the audience (and the characters) with a slow but ruthless chase by a group of people that all are after a graphic novel. That book is kept by a bunch of misfits of one sort or the other, a fan club that has been secretly discussing that lost manuscript for a long time, but their fandom clouding the fact that this book is actually something very dangerous to have, with potential impact on the civilisation as we know it.

The atmosphere of slightly decrepit, but occasionally also wonderfully stylish Britain, with a “killer squad” that could not look more odd and could not be more cruel, with a bunch of weirdos who only slowly start realising what form of trouble they got themselves into, and with a Neo-like figure (you might initially think) who is a very bad-ass leader of their personal little resistance, this is just fantastic television. Music, production design, title design all fits together to create a really uncomfortable look into a maybe near future.

Season 2 lacks the novelty of season 1, is more straightforward plotwise, decides to grow in scale instead. That is still entertaining, but less atmospheric and more straightforward. Still worth your while, though, and still much better than most things you can see on a tv or movie screen these days. “Not for the faint of heart” alarm, but you will find out whether this is for you about 10 minutes into episode 1 of season 1, or at the latest when explanations are provided as to the possible application of sand, pepper and spoon. Application to an eye, that is.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2384811/

Steven Soderbergh, Clive Owen… there is no need to add anything once those two names have been pronounced inside one sentence. But of course in the case of “The Knick”, it gets even better, because I happen to enjoy stories of medical challenge, progress and failure. Need to check out “Dead Ringers” again… No, strangely enough, independent of The Knick, I was recently engrossed in (and sometimes grossed out by) the oeuvre  of that New Yorker surgeon column writer, a Mr Gawande, who greatly reflects about the challenges and borders of modern medicine and surgery. On the spot to illustrate this a bit with the history of surgery, as in the case of Dr Thackerey of the Knickerbocker hospital in New York around the 1900s. Even though sometimes it has a bit too much Upstairs Downstairs (or Downton Abbey, as you would call it today), and an abundance of love interests some of which we could do without, the depiction of this driven surgeon who is always on the quest for better solutions, who is driven by scientific urge as much as by vanity, and who is powered by the ever-burning fuel of cocaine and opium. … that is fascinating and splendid television.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/the-knick/s01/

Just a quick note on this: if you loved “The Trip“, you will of course love “The Trip to Italy”. It still does not make any sense as a restaurant testing tour, because Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon still know nothing about food other tan that it can be eaten if somebody else pays for it. It still looks as if sponsored by the local “Association of Considerably Expensive Gastronomy”, but as this time it takes place in Italy rather than in Northern England, the weather is better and the girls are more pretty and less dressed.

It still features a subtle competition between loud-mouthed career doubt and silent content about the course of life and the stability of family, as represented by the two almost-real-actor-characters, and it of course does again circle around the competition of who is doing the more impressive Michael Caine impersonation. Featuring Mo Farah, Stephen Hawking, as well as Brydon and Coogan in a plane crash up the Andes. An interesting story to listen to. My personal favourite could be Tom Hardy trying to talk to his agent, who does not understand him, and Batman trying to talk to Alfred, who does not understand him…

These two guys are absolutely hilarious, Michael Winterbottom is one of the few geniuses working in film and TV today, and hence: nothing can go wrong. Splendid entertainment! If you watch it twice you will not be able to start annoying your peers quoting it, careful…

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0406q2d

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/the-trip-to-italy/

Wow, reading the cast list alone makes it hard to believe this is a made-for-tv drama: Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Judy Davis, Michael Gambon, Winona Ryder, Helena Bonham-Carter, Christopher Walken, Rupert Graves, Ralph Fiennes… and they are all doing their best!

The story of this made-for-BBC trilogy is about spying, old style. MI5 agent Johnny Worricker gets his hands on a file he should not get his hands on, he decides there must be a reason for the file being out there, and when his administration turns against him, he disappears and pursues the case on his own. Now this could sound like the latest “24” season, but mind you, it is the British Secret Service we are talking about here. The films are much more “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” than “24”, and most people maintain a very cultivated tone when accusing each other of espionage, torture or cheating governments out of tax payers’ money.

Which is not to say it is not a thrilling show to watch. Worricker is on the move across Europe for a large part, he needs to be alert and able to move on as soon as there is a threat of being discovered, he needs to face the very real threat of crooked businessmen who somehow have allied with the Prime Minister. Not as many people die as would in a regular “24” episode, but some do, and their deaths actually do have an impact.

I am not sure whether all three films are of the same quality, or whether a trilogy had been planned from the outset. I did feel a bit less enthusiastic about part 2 “Turks & Caicos”, as it enjoyed a little bit too much the possibility of nice sunsets and swanky hotel bars, and maybe allowed itself to got distracted from the characters. Still, all in all a very very rewarding piece of entertainment, with not just famous, but throughout excellent actors.

Page Eight (2011)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1797469/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Page_Eight

Turks & Cacos (2014)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2904608/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turks_%26_Caicos_(film)

Salting the battlefield (2014)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2904626/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salting_the_Battlefield

 

 

Woah what a cast… William Hurt as Richard Feynman, being dragged into the bureaucracy and politics of the Commission investigating the failure of the Challenger space shuttle launch, that commission being run by ambiguous-as-ever Brian Dennehy (note to self: have not seen “First Blood” in ages!), and Bruce Greenwood (what?? He also played in First Blood?? Is that to be taken as an in-joke, with the nerdy Professor as Rambo?) balancing between the dangerous edges of corporate and institutional self-interest.

I have an interest in that story since I read Feynman’s Annex to the Commission Report, it is a fabulous story of institutional failure – not quite a crime story, and because it maintains its soberness and does not easily identify villains and heroes, it makes a great example for the complexity of reality and the thrills of a scientific approach. The film tidies up the complexity a bit, and jumps on the now infamous O-ring bandwagon as soon as it is identified. I guess that can be justified in the context of a made-for-tv movie of 90 minutes running time. I still wished they had taken a bit more time allowed to hint at the sheer magnitude of mismanagement, corporate failure and backroom shuffling.

Still: a solid bit of infotainment, with an infallible William Hurt at its heart, the lonesome warrior against all efforts of cover up and make problems go away, the Don Quichote on his horse of science. As it is, his books deserve a second reading too, I remember that decades ago when I read some of his writings, I immediately felt like a brighter and better person…

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2421662/

After the first two seasons of Borgen I admit I was very keen on seeing more about this, even though I was wondering where they could possibly take the story of former opposition politician, then Prime Minister of Denmark.

Season 2 ended with…

…. spoiler alert …

… the announcement of new general elections by an invigorated Birgitte. Season 3 opens with a Birgitte who had been defeated in those elections and needs to find a way to keep herself entertained and busy in the private sector. It pays the bills, but we know that she cannot be too happy, being unable to live her urge of making the world a better place. No surprise then that soon enough there is a way for her back into the treadmill of politics, and she grabs the chance with enthusiasm. Less opportunity this time for family feuds and emotional upheaval, even the boyfriend sidekick that makes the occasional appearance is used to further her political cause. This is a tougher Birgitte, one that appears liberated from the political institutions that were, and feels she can reinvent the political system. The other women in play are less stable against emotional turmoil, especially former journalist come party spin doctor Kathrine sometimes behaves like a teenager after her first rejection, but maybe that is a realistic scenario and just appears as uncomfortable to watch on screen as it does in life.

The show continues to work its way along a “human West Wing” track, with the superbrains of Sorkin’s White House soap replaced with people more easy to identify with, to the point of me trying to figure out how I would deal with the decision-making situations at hand. This cumulates towards the season finale, when the question comes up whether moderate political success can be turned into prestige by way of shortcuts, and what the right thing to do is given a very specific set of choices. That these discussions about the fate of the Danish government take place in the casual settings of corridors or broom closets makes Borgen a pleasant alternative to the glitzy American productions with similar topics. But the true strength of the show is the feeling of the importance of politics, as a process of shaping society rather than the mere urge to run it.

If Season 3 really was the final season, as Price indicated, that is a clever move. All conceivable scenarios have been worked, and by replaying earlier scenarios the show would risk losing credibility. Still sad to say good bye though…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borgen_(TV_series)

There is quite a lot of hype about this show, it has all the ingredients that seem to work these days, with plenty of wigs and contemporary (60s and 80s) costumes, and with a cold war atmosphere of snooping and spying that seems to experience a renaissance .

The starting point of a Russian KGB couple embedded in American society is nice enough and provides for some promising expectations, some of which come to play already in Season 1: apart from the generally complicated task of getting information on US missile defense systems, FBI operations and foreign policy, the interesting bit is how to make this work while living a supposedly regular suburban life with children and colleagues, and living a bunch of parallel relationships while trying to figure out what the own marriage is all about. And then there is that neighbour… that neighbour is an FBI counterintelligence officer and is played by an immensely intense Noel Schumacher, fighting his own demons at work and at home, and honestly being the one character that is truly interesting (maybe with the exception of that KGB granny of “Justified” fame).

As these shows go, you are dealing with a mix of long-term narrative (all  marriages disintegrating, the FBI guy’s relationship with a KGB staffer turned to become an FBI snitch) while providing crime-show-like one-off suspense through the missions our spying heroes have to complete. The latter I could do without, actually, I feel the show would benefit from allowing its characters to have a more long-term approach, a Soprano-like appreciation of life being mostly about nothing special happening, even amidst a life of crime, and this nothing special being the engine of fate.

One interesting aspect is that the two “illegals” (i.e. Russian spies) we are to identify with are quite nice people, while committing all sorts of crimes. Does that qualify as a moral dilemma? Not really actually, maybe because by now we are used to this in quality tv, but I felt it easy to accept that most of the people affected by fatal violence had it coming one way or the other, by being not very nice people, or by choosing a line of work that frequently gets you killed.

The twist that worked for me quite nicely is that any audience perception of “them” being the bad guys despite being nice guys, and “us” being in a position to do whatever is needed to defend against them, is shattered halfway through the show by showing that moral integrity is not as clearly allocated as some might have wished for. Hence: no more good guys / bad guys scenarios, but rather a fierce war for survival frequently thwarted by uncalled-for emotions and personal affections. If they carry this ambiguity into season 2, there is a chance for the show of getting from pretty good to pretty damn good.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2149175/

Praised by many as one of the “Must See TV shows” of recent years, I hesitated a long time to turn to “Sherlock”. The reason being… well Sherlock Holmes. This is a character in literature that I never felt affection for. The prototypical “clever detective” character, the stories lacked literary craftsmanship, and the convoluted plot twists and arbitrary resolutions made me lose interest after reading a couple of the stories many years ago. Where’s the tension when you will be presented with an abundance of logically deduced and irrefutable evidence at the end, none of which was initiated before?

But then again, it is a character of British national heritage, so why not entertain the idea of a modernised version, but still rooted in the original set of characters and storylines? Still better than the rather dull recent film versions where Holmes is limited to fist-fighting and fast smart talking. Smart talking he does in the BBC show, too, but you have to give them that they found a balance of… I would call it modern antique, a merging of time-honoured traditions and modern London. Most characters are nicely British in their quirkiness and the baggage of complexes they have to deal with. Some good British acting talent is seen, not just the two detective buddy heroes with perennial phobia of being identified as a couple, but also housekeeper, brother Mycroft, detective whatshisname… Lagarde? This tv show being of the somehow “family friendly” nature, it just lacks the raw edge other tv shows display these days. Also, it has too much stress on its wittiness and snappy dialogues, and is too happy with its set of lead characters – meaning even at greatest peril, there is nothing really at stake. Even when you see Holmes fall off a high building or Watson get buried under a burning pyre, there is nothing to worry, the show does not look as if it was willing to lose either of them.

Hence: solid entertainment for a while when TheBridge, TheKilling and all the other much better tv shows are on break, but no real need for enthusiasm.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1475582/

Have I sung praise for “American Horror Story “ yet? No? That’s a scandal, because I believe it’s among the most precious gems to be found on television today, and that means ever! It is exactly the kind of show that would be designed for target audience “me”: It is violent where it needs to be, sexy where it wants to be, politically incorrect to make a point throughout, completely over the top, and now that we have reached the end of season 3: silly and goofy as well, and aware of it.

The concept alone is magnificent: each season stands on its own feet, with a dedicated theme, setting, storyline and cast of characters (season 1: murder house, season 2: mental asylum, season 3: witch coven…). As some of the main cast is recurring, however, there is a spooky feeling of déjà vu, an atmosphere of loops of fate, a Groundhog Day-like notion of inevitability, sometimes despair. Whatever these guys do, whichever way the last turn ended, they will show up next season, and new misery will ensue… The casting principle is formidable, with some of the cast coming back for the new season, but with completely new characters. Unfortunately we lost some great actors along the way, no doubt because of excessive success in other media business segments. Most prominently Zachary Quinto did not come back for season 3, James Cromwell as Nazi doctor (season 2) and Joseph Fiennes as weirdo priest only had one-season appearances. Or the nice guy Duncan from “Hostages” (Dylan McDermott) – are they lost to the show after two seasons, or will they show up again when a new opening in their schedules comes up?

On the other hand, the casting agents and writers pull no punches in filling those gaps, and season 3 introduced the impressive presence of Gabourey Sidibe as obese black angry witch. And there’s Stevie Nicks. If you think it’s weird to not only have Stevie Nicks introduced as a White Witch paying a visit to a coven of witch sisters, but also for her to be declared role model of all good witches, and to perform a couple of songs with them, and to actually have a video of her “Seven Wonders” open the season 3 finale – if you think that is weird, then think again. It’s all perfectly normal in the context of this show.

As is that I forgot to mention the tiny detail of Angela Basset’s and Kathy Bate’s outstanding performances, there is just so much going on. Those two share the fate of being immortal, and the pendulum swings from this being a blessing to being a curse quite frequently. Especially Kathy Bates has a respectable amount of suffering to do, and that only after having been awakened at the opening of Season 3 from being buried alive for a couple hundred years… The writers are very interested in elaborating what “immortal” really means, and come up with an interesting variety of treatments to find out what can be done to an immortal person until that word does not apply anymore.

One spot, however, is reserved: the throne of crazy, the supreme witch, the comeback of the decade. Maybe if not for American Horror Story, very few people would have thought the words “Jessica Lange” again, one of those former lady stars kind of fading into oblivion despite her impressive track record, Academy Awards and all. Jessica Lange is back with a vengeance, the rips the tv screen in half with her voice growling at her less talented staff and coven tenants, her lips sucking her cigarettes as if she wanted to tease them into an erection, she is seductive to the men and cruel to the girls, she is willing to sacrifice and kill whoever stands in her way, and if she has one weakness, it is her vanity and her fear of ageing and fading away, and this weakness makes her fight only more savagely against all adversaries. If ever there was a 64 year old actress who blows away all the pretty girls that dare to stand in the same frame, Jessica Lange takes the prize and dances on the graves (or burning remains, or pieces of chopped off body parts) of her doll bystanders. She pays a high price for this (oh, by the way: the devil shows up at some point. And he looks like Tom Waits if Tom Waits had more Jamaican blood in his veins.), but wasn’t it worth it? We’ll ask her in a couple of million years, when she will have had time to settle in her new arrangements.

Season 3 (or rather “American Horror Story: Coven”) almost put me off early on with its silly mix of Harry Potter boarding school, teenage girls bitchfighting and the introduction of a specific skill to bring people back from the dead (always a bad thing: the stakes immediately plummet). As most of these elements are mixed into a very thick witch’s soup with plenty of eyes floating in it and the resurrection yielding some interesting contributions to the cast (“It was fun making him. It will be more fun un-making him”) I soon started to accept the premise, however. No: this is different from Season 1 or 2, this deviates from a very good, but rather straightforward horror show to a “let’s go craaaaazyyyy!” – and with Jessica Lange leading me by  the hand, I would go down any road anyway!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Horror_Story

Another great tv show from the UK, a clean-cut “Whodunnit” with two perfectly cast lead detectives, the grumpy and secretly handsome mastermind investigator from Scotland with a dark past (David Tennant), and the pudgy local gal with a conscience and a social network to maintain (Olivia Colman). Not much to say about it but that the way the investigation goes is rather run-of-the-mill, with attention wandering from one suspect to the next. But the show makes it clear that it also deals with reality, and with the cruel realities in small communities such as Broadchurch. If you are under suspicion of having killed a child or committed another atrocity, the community turns against you, and most likely in a way that cannot be fixed (ask Mads Mikkelsen’s kindergarten teacher in “Jagten”, he can tell a story about this). “Broadchurch” does not paint this over, it puts it at the heart of the story, which is more about how intrusion disrupts this community, and how dynamics shift with these disruptions. A place like Broadchurch, this becomes very clear, can be a very rough place to live, despite all its natural beauty. It’s the people…

Funny note on the side: a US  network will adapt this for the American audiences… because it is assumed that FOX audiences are too stupid to understand English or Scottish?? Any expectations about how the edge will be taken off this great show in the process are allowed…

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2249364/

Is it excessively violent, as has been claimed by some critics? Sure. Is that a bad thing, is the violence gratuitous? I don’t think so. Utopia is a dystopian thriller that does not really come up with a new story line (Katheryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” immediately comes to mind, as do a couple of convoluted Dan Brown stories), but what it does is combine the run-of-the mill “The Company hunts down The Kids because The Kids stumbled across a Dark Secret” plot and provides a new setting for it.

Very often, the bleaker sides of British life provide very interesting change of pace, backdrop and atmosphere for just about any story, and the same applies here: this is a very British tv show, and one of the advantages of British tv is that they usually do not shy away from extremes and edges. Hence: yes, violent and brutal in the way the hunters treat the hunted, at the same time often funny and peculiar, and even the kid actor is not annoying. Most of the cast is great, actually, with award for most creepy hit man in recent history going to Arby, the chubby guy in the bomber jacket, lurching slowly through this world, leaving behind a trail of blood (not in his face, though, he has this well-practiced habit of protecting himself from splatter…).

The only slighcomplaint I have is that I wish the story’s core McGuffin, a graphic novel manuscript that allegedly contains information on a number of global diseases, was exploited a bit more cleverly. I felt a bit let down by the actual explanation, and by the fact that the artwork itself plays less of a role than you would expect or wish. Still: a visually stunning and atmospheric dense, thrilling and entertaining piece of modern television.

Side note to US tv producers: six episodes is the perfect length for a tv drama. No need for convoluted plot twists, no need for quarter- and mid-season interim pseudo-finales…

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/utopia/episode-guide/series-1

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utopia_(TV_series)

What does it mean that now for the third time I feel compelled to write about Breaking Bad (comments after Season 1 here, after Season 3 there)? Even after the cycle has closed, and the show experienced a mostly worthy finale, it is worth reflection, I suppose. Mainly because it maintained an impressive position about people’s characters: given the impulse, people can change, and whoever tells a story about people staying the same is a liar.

Not just Walter White, whose change from nerdy teacher and family man to ruthless murderer and drug lord plays at the heart of the show. With him, it’s actually easy to see how his insulted vanity only waited for the opportunity to break bad and show them all what kind of man, what kind of leader has always been hidden under the seemingly soft shell. His early efforts of managing his classes, his family and his career (with the key event of being cheated out of a lucrative business venture, as he would put it, years before the show’s narrative even started) leave no doubt that he is a hurt diva, and immediately garbs the opportunity to prove his true self.

But also the changes in his wife, or in Jessie the Apprentice, are fascinating to observe. They’ve had five years to grow and age in the show, and that alone would have left them different persons. Given what they had to experience and process over these five years, they arrive at the show’s finale as people very different from those they were before. Or maybe – just as with Walter – their part in the story has violently ripped away all the covers and costumes, and allowed them (or forced them) to be more close to their true self, having shed a lot of the costumes and masquerade they put on because it seemed expected of them. Skyler can be cruel and determined, Jessie can be unforgiving and himself. Is the morale of all this that sometimes a dictator is needed to get the most real character out of somebody, because only upon suffering they can decide whether resistance is called for? And only resistance to an evil force activates the primeval instincts that are sometimes necessary parts of personality?

Walter Whyte certainly created the his own enemies, he turned the flock of humble followers into mortal enemies, triggering his own downfall. He achieved this by being too greedy, not about the money, but about proving that he can bring down empires (Gus’, in this case) and replace them with new ones of his own design. Greed triggered by pride… a fatal combination. As summarised by the resident Breaking Bad philosopher Nazi Uncle: “Jesus, what’s with all the greed here? It’s unattractive.” That’s right. We learned many dimensions of greed over the course of five seasons of Breaking Bad, be it the greed for money, the greed for control, for being the most clever person in the room, or the greed for family and normality. Most of Breaking Bad’s characters are too eager to achieve their goals, and get to feel the consequences.

Did they wrap up the show the best they could? I suppose so. I have no doubt everybody was very, very keen on finding the best possible route towards the end credits, and the result was good. When looking back at the show in a couple of years’ time, I will probably not remember how this played out in detail (whereas I am already looking forward to seeing the final Sopranos episode again sometime soon, or the finale of the British “Life on Mars”). What I will remember is the two Mexican killers walking up to the old lady’s (witch’s?) house in their shiny grey suits, passing the crawling pilgrims, starting to undress. I will remember a pink teddy bear floating in a swimming pool, and a glass eye sucked into the pool’s filter. And I will remember the foggy eyes of Jessie when he is wandering through his own house like in a dream, seeing the party going on around him, not sure how he got there, whether this is what he was trying to achieve.

What is the difference between CBS writers and HBO writers? Very simple: one of those two groups is very good, the other one is nowhere near as good. Never has that been as obvious as in “Under The Dome”.

I do not mind the choices made about changing the original story, merging characters, making up new ones… that’s what you have to do when you move a story from one medium to another. My reservations are more basic: If 90 per cent of the actors involved are not first class, then you better have a script that accommodates this deficit and allows them to be clunky on purpose. If, on the other hand, you have the odd professional actor who would be able to handle a slightly grown-up conversation, then you must give him / her lines that do not make them look idiotic.

It comes down to: this is among the worst-written tv shows that I have ever had the misfortune to watch. The dialogues in particular are clunky and redundant (case in point in one of the last episodes: butterfly hitting a dome, creating black spots, actor: “look, the butterfly is hitting the dome leaving black spots”, same episode: all light gone after the dome turns black completely, actress on the walkie-talkie: “Hey Jim, the light has gone”… ). This was painful to watch, and many people wondered in the online forums why, if they think it’s so terrible, do they continue watching. Some argued along the “fascination of a car crash” lines, my own excuse is the “same reason why I hardly ever leave a movie screening before the end” line. A mixture of hope and the urge of completeness, the desire for closure, and maybe a bit of redemption for my past sins. Now that season 1 is done, I will not come back for season 2, the reason being that there is no indication of a story arch leading to a final point. This will go on as long as CBS decides there’s an audience, and when that audience is gone, they will wrap it up within three episodes. I will not be along for when that happens. But I am actually surprised by the large audience share the show got, is there something particularly appealing to a US audience about small town life hitting the fan? Or is it that network audiences are just so rarely exposed to proper modern television that they do not have the same feeling of this playing in a whole different universe than the Breaking Bads or Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empires? This is kind of weird…

At least the show confirms my suspicion that never will there be a high-quality adaptation of a Stephen King story for the tv screen. It happens rarely enough for the big screen, but tv… no need to keep up hopes.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1553656/

I admit, I started into watching this more out of curiosity rather than enthusiasm. The original BBC show is splendid, and with its setting in distinguished circles of British politics, it provides an almost insurmountable discrepancy between sophisticated outer appearance and the inner workings, driven by insatiable greed for power. To recreate this in a Washington setting takes off the edge a bit, because betrayal and despair, sex and murder, and virtually everything that is corrupt and vile is the expected rather than the surprising in today’s D.C. system, isn’t it (at least when you’re religiously watching The Daily Show, as I do)?

There are some items about the remake that stand out: casting Robin Wright as a much more active wife of party whip Francis Underwood, allocating her some own pieces on the chess board of politics is what struck me first. Knowing as we do where the story will lead us (if we saw the UK show and if that is any indication about where the US show will be going) that is a good move, and Robin Wright is terrific in what she’s doing, having processed her Carmela Soprano episodes very diligently, establishing a character that is torn between lust for power, heightened pragmatism, and the realisation that this just does not work if there is any aspect of humanity or just biology left inside you. She is suffering without causing sympathy, whatever she is heading towards (more power, more cruelty, less love, or utter sidelining, who knows…), she will deserve it, having sold her soul to the devil, whom she loves and admires, and believes (against indications to the contrary, I would say) that she is loved back. Underwood’s better sentences in the first season, casually spoken to the audience, is “I love that woman, I love her more than sharks love blood”. I am sure that sentence’s interpretation will continue to shift over the seasons.

Underwood himself: this is the hardest bit, I guess, because Ian Richardson plays the original Francis Urquhart so demonic, so perfect as the central manipulator of the political system that you can only fail in comparison. Kevin Spacey does not fail, but he also does not add anything noteworthy to the character that would impress those who know the BBC original. For those being exposed to the Underwood character for the first time, I am sure this works just fine, he is ice cold in his moves, mostly in control of the situation, rarely angry, always willing to make the move that he deems necessary.

My favourite character is actually Underwood’s minion, Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly, who has to physically move the pieces when the Master decides on a move, who has to keep an eye on everything that’s going on, keeping open doors for future action, and who at the same time is not immune to affection and disgust, it seems. His relationship with hooker Rachel is among the finest pieces of the Season, he is credible in his caring for her, yet cold blooded when it comes to calling in favours, even though these favours may destroy that girl.

There are many good, some great performances in the first season, but what really convinced me that the US remake has a value of its own is the role of congressman Peter Russo, tortured by his past, used and abused by Underwood, spit out when trampled on, still full of hope as long as he could, at every twist and turn willing to believe in the next chance.  Great performance by Corey Stoll.

At the end of the season, I could not help but think “ah, American remake after all…”, as they shied away from following the original in what I considered to be a key plot point, to do with the role of journalist Zoe. I kept thinking all the time that had they stuck with the original, the build-up would have been really great, even better in the BBC show in that Zoe’s part is more personal, more elaborated. As it turns out, they seem to have different plans, either because they want to avoid merely replicating the original’s plot, or because they believe American shows have to follow different rules for being “meaningful” and acceptable to the audience. I was a bit disappointed by the season finale, because I felt a bit “robbed” of what could have been a major tv moment. Maybe that’s all still to come, as it was, the season anti-climaxed a bit. Still looking forward to the next one.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1856010/

A BBC 2 documentary that seeks to document what has been happening on the North Sea rig “Piper Alpha” which went up in flames and explosions during a quiet night on July 6, 1988. The film decides to stay with the people who survived, allows them to tell their experiences, their way out of the mayhem. This is illustrated with original footage from the platform, and some carefully used animations based on the platforms construction diagrams, providing a very good sense of space before and when chaos erupts. For some scenes during the catastrophe, scenes were reenacted, something which I did not care for too much. I thought the footage shot from the neighbouring rescue platform were quite enough to provide an accurate idea of the despair those workers still trapped in that inferno must have felt – especially as there were some survivors who could quite clearly explain how chaotic the situation was and when they had reached the point of knowing for sure that they would die in the flames.

This was one decision of the film-makers that can be argued about. Another is the almost complete absence of causes and consequences. We learn that ill-managed maintenance may have been responsible for the explosion. We also learn that there has never been a trial illuminating the charges. While I don’t say that every documentary about a disaster needs to figure about who was responsible (as in some cases, no one is and shit just happens to happen), in this case it seemed like a tangible gap in the narrative. An enterprise of this nature and size, dealing with enormous amounts of oil and gas, can blow up just like this? A fire can erupt in a way that it cuts off the crew from the lifeboats? I was reminded of the Challenger explosion, where an elaborate process led from the assertion that “things can go wrong” to “there are fundamental flaws in the system that made a catastrophe very likely”. We learn that there was an analysis, and that there were recommendations for safety improvements. Linking those to what happened that night on Piper Alpha, a night in which 167 crew members were killed and only 61 survived, would have made a very interesting documentary, raising the film beyond its mere disaster narrative. As for what it is, it serves as an emotional reminder of a catastrophe, without daring to judge or to weigh. A possible approach, even though I feel something is missing that I would have been interested in.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p019bt95
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-23100125

This is the original Israeli show on which “Homeland” is based. Matter of fact, both shows were developed in parallel based on the concept by Gideon Raff, and this allows for very interesting insights into audience expectations, production conditions and some more. While I mostly like Homeland (despite being occasionally frustrated by the script’s random yoyo play with the motivations and goals of its lead character, played by Damien Lewis), it is nothing compared to this intense drama around two Israeli prisoners of war who return back home in the course of a prisoners exchange 16 years after being captured.

Hatufim seems to have a clearer focus and structure, it seems to know where it’s going, something many US shows with their annual fight for renewal lack. The first of the currently two seasons (a third one is in development) focuses on the spectacular fact that prisoners held and abused for such a long time finally make it home, and on the emotions this stirs in the country, in the families and in the secret service. Uri’s and Nimrode’s return is not easy, they are not used to being with their families anymore, and these families have changed, of course. People have died, have found new spouses, have hardened in the fight for the return of their loved ones. Children that had hardly been born at the time of the abduction are now grown up and expected to accept and even love family members they never met. Any hope that you can just return and continue your live 16 years after all bonds have been suddenly severed are shattered within a few moments and days. With this focus on a whole society and the affected individuals struggling with their new situation, the show creates a dense drama about trust and love, family and fear, and about fighting your own demons.

But Hatufim is not mere social drama, there is also suspicion lurking about what has been going on during the captivity, what happened to the third captive, whose remains return only in a body bag. There are several secret service departments that seem to have their own motivations, there is more knowledge around that is revealed, and something seems to build up towards an escalation.

The second seasons shifts the focus dramatically by introducing a new set of characters that had been highly relevant to the first season without us knowing, it adds the other side of the Israeli-Palestine conflict and by doing so steps onto slightly more conventional polit-thriller track. But it does so on its own terms, refusing the temptation to confuse spectacle and explosions with drama, but instead insisting on the characters’ own struggles to cope with the emerging truths to be the real object of interest. While the thriller plays out, it does so in a calm and human way, there are no superheroes to be found, but people who develop, who face worries, doubts and weakness. Maybe this is most visible in the lack of a lead investigator (the excessively intelligent, dedicated and ill Claire Danes Character in “Homeland”). There are many people contributing to pushing the story ahead, and while Mossad psychologist Haim may be the calm centre of our attention, he is nowhere near in control of anything happening on either side of the fence.

To me, populating this show with credibly flawed characters is what makes Hatufim stand out against other shows that are going for the more straightforward show effects. It is not without deficits, especially when it gives in to the temptation of providing some spectacle and thrill it becomes evident that this is not the strength of the production team. But despite this, there is so much of great drama that it outweighs these moments of slightly clumsy action.

Looking forward to Season 3, and I very much hope that they do not stretch it indefinitely.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoners_of_War_(TV_series) (Spoilers)

This three-part made-for TV drama covers the paths of five German friends in the later days of World War II. A mixed bunch of professions (from soldier to showgirl) and ethnicity (one of them is Jewish), they believe nothing can tear their friendship apart, until they are separated by the course of their respective lives, and that’s enough to do away with that illusion. We follow their respective fates, wondering whether they will keep their promise and reunite after the war is over.

The show tries a couple of things at the same time: It tries to be more honest about the cruelties of war than the odd mainstream TV drama would be (going “Private Ryan” / “Band of Brothers”, but from a German perspective). I think it also seeks to show that hardly anybody was completely on the side of “good” or “evil” during the Nazi regime and the war. It also takes an unusually wide sweep at the range of directions from which you could expect harm: army, SS, collaborators, benefactors, turn-cloaks  rebels, Germans, Jews, Polish, Ukrainians  Russians … there is not a single group around that would not have blood on their hands one way or the other, by looking away, by snitching, by staying silent, by trying to be correct, by being cowards and by trying to be heroes. War time gets you all, the show seems to say, whatever your intentions were. The production got quite a bit of heat from Poland for showing the Polish partisan fighters being basically a bunch of anti-Semitic rogues. Whether this criticism is justified or not I can’t judge – they are certainly depicted as not very nice people, despite fighting Nazis Inglorious-Basterds-style.

That is a bit of an odd message, if you project it it could be read as the whole society as somehow being victim of circumstances, unable to escape their personal doom. I try to understand where that specific twist of the script comes from: if you make mainstream TV, or mainstream cinema, all commercial logic screams for identifiable heroes that the audience can crave for. Only yesterday I read about the rewrites for the “World War Z” film, the parallel seems obvious: You don’t want to have a hero who is “just” a killer (even “just a killer of Nazis / Zombies”), and if you have heroes who need to be “also” killers (because otherwise there would be no need to include them in this film), at least you need to provide them with enough morale stature and background to make them suffer from their choices. And that means you need to also give them the benefit of being victims.

Without doubt, this aspect his something going for it, without doubt there have been plenty of Europeans falling into this overlapping zone of “compromised by circumstances”, opening interesting points for debate. I do not mind focusing the film on this group as much as others did in their sometimes heated discussion about the moral position of the film.

What I do mind (and what seems to get often neglected over the political and moral discussions) is that “Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter” is not a good film. Its script is too straightforward and predictable to be thrilling, the dialogues are often wooden beyond belief (mostly representing more the cliches of what Germans and Nazis in particular are supposed to sound like rather than finding a natural tone), and the acting … my theory is confirmed that the great strength of US TV production is the abundance of great talent to choose from (authors, actors, directors, maybe most importantly). Germany does not have that benefit. There may be a dozen actors who would be able to seriously represent the characters depicted here, but sadly most of them are not in the film, and there are many more characters to play than a dozen… There are people who can make fantastic TV in Germany, but these are pushed to the sidelines of the mainstream. Other than in the new Scandinavian TV renaissance, German TV seeks to be more conservative about what it wants to bring on the little screen.

In consequence, I was sometimes bored, occasionally annoyed. Especially as it is so obviously inspired by ambitious TV dramas such as Band of Brothers (in particular in terms of structural design) I found it impossible to excuse it for its flaws.

Wikipedia entry (with plenty of plot spoilers): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unsere_M%C3%BCtter,_unsere_V%C3%A4ter

Now imagine “The Sopranos” getting a spin-off financed by the Norwegian Board of Film Subsidies and the Lilehammer Post-Olympics Tourism Promotion Committee, and further imagine that Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band guitarist has never been to Norway before and thinks it would make for a great family holiday to spend some days among the Vikings. The work packages are quickly divided: the Norwegians provide the settings and the actors, and Steven van Zandt brings his old coats and suits he nicked of the HBO sets and writes his own lines as if he was still on Tony Sopranos payroll. The result is “Lilyhammer”, a TV show that brings a bit of New Jersey mobster flair to the otherwise more than calm place of the 1994 Winter Olympics. Frank Tagliano gets there to hide from his former associates, but basically ignores the new environment and keeps doing what Silvio was doing, opening a club, pulling strings, manipulating the local politicians and businessmen, gambling and smoking.

I was well enough entertained by this, even though it is a far stretch from original. But van Zandt is consistent and works perfectly well as the ignorant crook who just refuses to change his ways just because he ended up at the colder end of the world. I am still hoping for a cameo from James Gandolfini in the next season, but even without it, I will be happy to keep crossing my fingers that the American mob won’t track him down, that his girl sticks with him, that his shoes won’t get ruined by the perennial snow and that he can end the neighbourhood war with the Norwegian garbage separation Nazis.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1958961/

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